Chloë Sevigny on ghostly spirits tormenting Lizzie Borden biopic production: 'It was terrifying'
A version of this story appeared in the 2018 Fall Movie Previewissue of Entertainment Weekly, available for purchase here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
“Legends grow and take on their own kind of life,” Chloë Sevigny says of alleged murderess Lizzie Borden, whose pulpy, dehumanized legacy has devolved into a pop cultural punchline (everyone knows the morbid nursery rhyme) over the years. But legends — and their ghosts — sometimes return to steer the lives of Oscar-nominated actresses, too.
“I kept hearing all these weird moaning and groaning noises, but there wasn’t anybody else in the house. It was terrifying. It was pretty early and [my then-boyfriend] was like, ‘I have to leave.’ He had a strange experience last night where he felt a pressure on his chest,” Sevigny recalls of a years-ago sleepover at the Massachusetts home where Borden supposedly hacked her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, to death in 1892.
The supernatural encounter inspired the Craig William Macneill-directed drama Lizzie (in theaters now), producer-star Sevigny’s deep cinematic dive into Borden’s unsolved case, and she teamed with longtime screenwriter friend Bryce Kass to craft a speculative, sympathetic lesbian love story in which Lizzie bonds with the Bordens’ live-in servant, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), to violently rebel against her father’s repressive, misogynistic abuses that walled Lizzie into an emotional prison. And this reimagined version isn’t the only woman with an ax to grind.
“We’ve got to bring down the patriarchy, and that’s what this movie’s ultimately about: women’s resistance,” Sevigny explains of the film’s defining moment, which sees her plunging the notorious, sharp-edged tool into her father’s flesh while completely naked. “She had to have this cathartic moment. She had so much pent-up rage.”
“It’s liberating, isn’t it?” Kass says of the pivotal scene. “Because there’s something really constricting about the world Lizzie inhabits. That house is a prison; there’s no light, the clothes are so constricting, they’re their own kind of prison, so to see her strip herself down and peel those layers to commit this really brutal, primal act of rage and catharsis, it’s kind of satisfying, oddly. It’s a satisfying moment for the audience. I feel guilty to feel satisfied watching that, but I did. But I think that’s what makes the movie complex in way… we’re asking if you should feel for her or be repelled by her, and I think Kristen’s character can stand in for the audience’s emotions in that way.”
Stewart, who plays the Irish immigrant serving the Borden household in the film, admits she loved the idea of observing Sevigny committing the crimes sans clothing for what the scene represents in the world of the film and beyond.
“She becomes feral,” Stewart says. “She becomes an animal. She’s visually, strikingly female in that moment, and also strikingly strong…. The image of Chloë’s face, checked out, turned off, carrying out this murder with blood spattered on it while you see her full tits out — you better watch out, dude!”
On the other hand, the love scenes between Bridget and Lizzie are notably heavy on Victorian corsets and layered dresses, a contrast with power that wasn’t lost on Stewart.
“We were never inserted into overly beautiful [scenarios]. We were never like, ‘Okay, then your corset bursts open!’ Of course it doesn’t burst open! It takes, like, 10 minutes to take off, so if we’re going to f—k, we’re going to do it with our clothes on!” she continues. “That intimacy level, that sort of hushed, quiet, whispered exchange they have, [fits]. It was present and honest. Same with the murder scene: They couldn’t wear clothes because blood would get on them, so they had to take them off. [But] seeing Chloë naked with an ax…. is so representative of what this movie is about. Conversely, us in our clothing while being intimate is trying to get under these binds, trying so hard to just get one inch of space closer…. we realized what’s sexy is the immediacy of not taking our clothes off.”
Sevigny and Kass say they originally channeled the wrath that explodes in the murder scene into a movie pitch at HBO, but the scribe says the subscription network had other ideas about turning it into a mini-series. During pre-production, however, Lifetime’s Christina Ricci-starring TV film Lizzie Borden Took an Ax beat the crew to the whack, so to speak, and the pair retained rights to the project around 2015 and redeveloped it as a feature once again.
“We had to go back to the drawing board and rethink and reconceive a really lean, clean, compact thriller that could take place in a much more contained way and the house became a bigger character,” remembers Kass. “It really became much more about Bridget and Lizzie’s relationship, and that was actually fun because I felt like that was always the core of the story to me.”
“It’s our interpretation, and we wanted to get to the core of her and how she became this misfit in this town,” adds Sevigny, who occupies one half of the central relationship that arises out of mutual resistance. “She comes to represent this repressed New England girl and a Victorian Spinster. I was captivated by her and how she’s become this misfit icon. Goths all kind of adore her for her strangeness and otherworldliness and this legend that she’s become.”
The process of fitting that relationship into a historical narrative began as Sevigny and Kass ventured back to the Borden home to map out the infamous murders for themselves — including Kass stationing himself downstairs while Sevigny hurled herself at the ground to mimic the thud Abby’s body would have made as it hit the floor.
“After all of my research… it’s pretty hard to imagine that she didn’t do it and that Bridget wasn’t in on it, considering the type of quarters they were in. It’s hard to imagine that the parents both could have been killed without either of them being in cahoots and/or participating,” Sevigny observes. Kass continues: “We spent the night there and the house is tiny. It’s two floors, and there are no hallways because they didn’t want to waste money on heat. It’s just rooms opening up to more rooms. As a result, sound carries, and if someone dropped dead upstairs, the thud would be massive.”
Their second go-round in the Borden abode courted yet another otherworldy audience, to boot.
“Well, there were actually two scratches,” Kass explains of his own run-in with entities from the spiritual realm. “There was the first scratch when I spent the night at the house and we did a séance, which was f—ing terrifying. And I’ve spent the night in the murder room, and in the middle of the night I woke up and I could feel something. I had a scratch on the side of my body. I was like, what the f—k? Then I couldn’t sleep…. but when we were on set, we were shooting in this old house…. I had to do a lot of drafts for the day [so] I was in a room by myself and suddenly, again, in the exact same spot there was the exact same scratch. It’s hard to know if it’s a prank, or if it’s a reminder, or if she has a sense of humor? In that sense, I’m hoping it’s Lizzie and not Andrew, you know?”
Regardless of nefarious torment from another plane of existence, Kass sees Borden as a “punk rock” anti-hero, though it’s “unfortunate how modern and relevant” the film’s themes about female repression are.
“Theoretically speaking, yes, absolutely I wanted to be a part of this movie because you see these two girls who are entirely oppressed and unable to breathe and being strangled. ‘Choice’ isn’t even a word that probably exists in the realm of their vocabulary…. Even though it doesn’t end super successfully for either of them, just being able to watch two people who are not allowed to f—ing be and just feel okay or happy for just one second, just share a few moments and kind of breathe together as one is, to me, so triumphant,” Stewart says. “I don’t want to mince words and say it’s obviously why Lizzie had to kill him. I’d never justify violence, but we’re all animals. If you corner an animal after locking it in a cage and doing bizarre things to it, what do you think’s going to happen? It’s going to bite back. It’s satisfying to see that turn…. Theoretically, it’s total justification. Lizzie wasn’t an evil, crazy monster; she was an abuse victim.”
Still, Kass believes “it’s the men who were trapped…. by this idea of masculinity, power, and authority…. It made their lives bitter, [but] it’s the women, in the end, who are liberated and free.”